Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Foreign v. Hollywood: Battle Royale & The Hunger Games

Now that I think on it, the title might be a little misleading. I am not comparing the films based upon their silver screen origins but their content.

Given the many parallels with Suzanne CollinsHunger Games Trilogy, Catching Fire currently playing in cinemas across the US, and my own familiarity with the the novels and films, I thought it pertinent to talk a bit about Kinji Fukasaku's film adaptation of Koushun Takami's original Battle Royale. The story was also turned into two manga series, but since I haven't actually read them myself I cannot really comment. Same goes for the sequel film, BRII: Requiem, which I have yet to watch (you might think that I would have in preparation for this post, but nope). Anyway, Rachelle recommended the book to me a few semesters ago and I viewed the film shortly thereafter. Both the written and cinematic versions are excellent, but should they really be compared to The Hunger Games? Read on for my theory...

Not rated in the US, among other countries. T'is violent, though.
The general idea behind BR wasn't new when the novel was first published. A batch of "There can be only one" arena-style movies came out in the seventies, including Rollerball, Death Race 2000, Logan's Run, and Deathsport. The '80s gave us Highlander and The Running Man, and even after BR came out in the '90s, films like House of 9 and The Tournament continued to crop up in cinemas. Why is it, then, that BR is most often compared to The Hunger Games? I hypothesize that it is in part due to the HG series doing rather well in the eyes of audiences and across the Internet, but also because it simply has more in common with BR than just the idea of a fight-to-the-death match.

Motifs between the two stories are very similar: using children as contestants, the fact that there is a one-girl/one-boy selection for entering the 'game', the events are televised, winners receive government-funded pensions, and the tracking collars in BR serve the same purpose as the surveillance technology located throughout the arena in HG. In both stories, the deaths of contestants are announced to the survivors, and even the distribution of weapons is comparable given that the Cornucopia in HG is a lot like the Okishima Island school in BR. There is also the important detail that some participants actually enjoy the battle, like the antagonistic Career Tributes, insane Mitsuko, and unfeeling Kazuo. The romance-y bits between the main protagonists in the first HG film and in BR can also be set side by side, though the chemistry between Shuya and Noriko is clearly more genuine given that Katniss only tries to gain sympathy from the audience when she snogs baker-boy. (Not that I begrudge that particular plot point: Katniss was trying to do whatever it took to make it out alive for the sake of her younger sister, Primrose). Most importantly, both fights are generally used to keep society in line through authoritarian power and fear tactics. Similar alternate timeline/futuristic post-war settings go unsaid. The final comparison I will make here is that of President Snow and Kinpatsu or Kitano in the BR novel and film, respectively. Since this is officially a film blog, I speak of Kitano when I say that he is a more redeemable antagonist than Snow (watch the movies to find out why!), but both are downright villainous creatures who subject children to abominable acts of violence.

Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material.
Concerning differences...the HG series uses a reaping/lottery as opposed to the flat-out abduction in BR; the battle is said to be used for 'research purposes', but the game is an act of punishment for previous war crimes against the Capitol of Panem; BR sees fit to use 'forbidden zones' and exploding collars to enforce the rule that if no contestant is killed within 24 hours, all collars blow up and there is no 'winner'. This means that BR is far more unforgiving than HG in that there is no real way to win. Collins creates a bit of a deus ex machina by letting both Katniss and Peta live after their show involving poisonous nightlock berries, though of course she needed them the live for the two sequels and uprising against the Capitol. BR is also a shit ton more violent. The killing is present in both, but HG is more discreet—Cato's death by wolf mutts is about as gory as things get—as that is not really the focus of Collins' story.

On a completely separate note, books written by Eastern authors with issues concerning Japan's warlike history tend to include Western pop culture references [Murakami much?]. Takami used American music in his novel to create a sense of individualism in the face of the Republic of Greater East Asia and a regimented government. Japanese writings also tend to have more static, difficult to distinguish characters which Takami has described in his own work as being "all the same". Perhaps that makes their deaths easier to swallow despite the fact that we as readers actually experience each contestant's murder through their own eyes as opposed to just Katniss' POV. Collins obviously lends the HG series a lot more character development, and that is a rather pivotal difference between the two works.

Image taken from Taste of Cinema, which is actually kind of a tawdry news site...
but the image was cool.

How do you think the novels/films compare? Do you prefer one story over the other? Is the controversy justified? Were there too many spoilers in this post? Let me know in the comments below. :P

Monday, December 9, 2013

Beasts of the Southern Wild

No criteria for this post. Free for all!

The class watched the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild by Benh Zeitlin this past Saturday. The plot focuses on a young girl named Hushpuppy (played by a very young Quvenzhané Wallis) and how her life in the Louisiana bayou is upset by Hurricane Katrina, her father's declining health, and an absentee mother. Since we were not actually assigned anything with this film, I just wanted to go over some of the Greek mythology embedded in the story...'cause I love history, and mythology is one of my specialties. I would delve into Biblical references as well, but the semester's technically over and I'm not too enthusiastic when it comes to Ye Olde Good Book. Anyway, I thought that the film's connections to magical realism and the idea of Universalism would be interesting things to discuss.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material including child imperilment,
some disturbing images, language, and brief sensuality.

Let's start with the storm itself. In mythos, Charybdis and Scylla are sea monsters, acting kind of as the personification of two whirlpools. I realize that a hurricane is an atmospheric storm whilst a whirlpool is a vortex in a body of water, but that's just semantics. Both are devastating and tend to involve a lot of flooding (grant it, hurricanes are much larger). Anyway, Charybdis and Scylla rested opposite one another in the narrow channel known as the Strait of Messina. Both 'creatures' acted together so that, if a vessel were to sail away from one, it was sure to be taken by the other. The origins of each whirlpool alter depending on the myth, but in every story they are dangerous. Charybdis was featured in Homer's The Odyssey, the story of Jason and the Argonauts, and Aristotle's Meteorologica. Scylla makes her own appearance in Ovid's Metamorphoses as well as Keats' Endymion. The two are so prevalent in Greek history that the phrase "to choose between Scylla and Charybdis" means being forced to choose between two extreme dangers (like a rock and a hard place, capiche?). In Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy does not choose to go head to head with Hurricane Katrina...quite unlike the sailors in the old epics who had to risk drowning in order to continue on their journey. It is noteworthy that Hushpuppy only survives the onslaught of the storm because of Wink's fishing boat, though. The Bathtub disappears beneath the waters and soon everything starts to die because of the sea's salt.

Hushpuppy, adrift.

We move swiftly along  to the Elysium Fields. To the Ancient Greeks, this was a concept of the afterlife maintained in certain philosophical and religious sects. Keep in mind that the main mode of thought was that the underground realm of Hades was the end game. The Fields were one of the more heavenly sections of Erebus, granting entrance initially only to those related to the gods but later to the gods' favourites, such as the righteous or the heroic. After death, these mortals would enjoy a continued life surrounded by indulgences (much like Valhalla in Norse mythology). There were also the Asphodel Meadows for normal folk and Tartarus for the wicked. In the film, Hushpuppy and her young friends leave the Bathtub and are granted passage by the captain of the 'Grumpy' to the floating brothel named 'Elysian' Fields—derived from the Greek, this is simply another name for the same afterlife. In literature, Charon is the ferryman: one could draw a connection between the fast-food wrappers "reminding [Grumpy's captain] where [he's] been" to the coin (an obolus or possibly a danake) paid to Charon for passage across the rivers Styx & Acheron. In a different light, Hushpuppy and the other children are parallels of Odysseus and his crew travelling to one of the many fabled islands mentioned in The Odyssey.

The children are greeted by maternal figures and offered sanctuary, as if resting within the eye of the storm. There is some conjecture as to whether the brothel is real or just a figment of Hushpuppy's imagination, possibly brought on by the natural desire for her own mother. Either way, it was a welcome form of relief after the initial hit to/uprooting from/eventual dismal return to the Bathtub. Know that the Greek 'Elysium Fields' was an evolving theory. It was not around at all during Homer's time, meaning that people did not much like the idea of being confined to just Hades and decided to change the surrounding myth to something a little...cushier. The idea that one could earn a happier afterlife lends some realism to the film, too. In a story about a devastating natural disaster, hope is a much-needed, reinforced belief.

The 'brothel' at the end of the world (The Isles of the Blessed in Elysium).

The most obvious bit of myth that appear in the film are the aurochs. Introduced by Hushpuppy's teacher as fearsome beasts that devoured humankind right up until the ice age, these creatures actually did exist...although they did not exactly have a taste for human blood. Aurochs died out in the 17th century, which makes me think that the teacher combined their tale with that of the prehistoric mammoths. They are a domesticated ancestor of modern-day cattle, making them a bit less fierce than Hushpuppy might imagine, though their horns were massive.

I bring up these guys because of the Minotaur, directly translated as 'Bull of Minos'. The Minotaur, whose actual name was Asterius (meaning 'Of the Stars'—see the constellation Taurus in astrology), was a gift to Minos from Poseidon to mark the King's divine right to rule. The God of the Sea sent up a bull from the depths of the ocean (*cough* the aurochs in the glaciers), but he wanted Minos to immediately sacrifice the bull as thanks. Minos decided not to, of course, so Poseidon punished the king's wife, Pasiphaë, by having her fall in love with the bull. Bestiality occurred, and soon after she gave birth to their son: Asterius. The half-bull/half-man was mental as a box of badgers because of his mixed lineage, so Minos had the inventor Daedalus design a labyrinth in which to hide/imprison the beast. Eventually, he is killed by Theseus with the help of Minos' daughter, Ariadne.

The aurochs in the film, while portrayed by costumed pigs, more closely resemble Asterius' father, the bull. However, there are not a lot of direct connections between that fable and Beasts of the Southern Wild apart from the importance and symbolism of the bull in Greek society. Bulls often represent rage and stubbornness as well as typical manliness/macho behaviour. Notice the similarity between those demeanours and Hushpuppy & Wink's personality traits? When Wink 'sees' his daughter stare down the auroch, he knows that she has become King of the Bathtub which signifies that he can safely move on and know that she will be safe.

Pig disguised (and re-sized) as an auroch. D'aaaw.

Most of what I used in this post concerning specific Greek myths came from National Geographic's Essential Visual History of World Mythology and Parragon's Encyclopedia of World Mythology, among other texts. These are good guides if you are just getting started with global mythology and symbolism, so I recommend them for interested amateurs (comme moi).

A classic hero's journey if ever I've seen one.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pan's Labyrinth

This post follows criteria for an analytical essay covering the film's integration of fairy tales.

The previous post covered the fairy tale that most obviously fits the structure of Guillermo del Toro's 2006 Spanish film Pan's Labyrinth. Charles Perrault's Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, better known as Little Red Riding Hood, contains certain aspects that coincide with Ofelia's journey through the labyrinthespecially the 'little girl lost' motif. I already did some analysis here, but I think it would much more interesting to see how the film transforms not only the Red Riding Hood myth, but fairy tales in general. del Toro uses an amalgamation of folkloric stories—and even creates a few of his own—so it would be truly unfair to limit the film to just one. Click that last link for the previous post where I noted similar visual/imagery styles between P'sL and LRRH, and read through this post for in-depth ties to the fairy tale genre (or, for Mimi, the continuation of part two and inclusion of part three on the criteria sheet).

Rated R for graphic violence and some language.

The fairy tales in Pan's Labyrinth act as a form of escapism for both the character Ofelia and the audience. While del Toro does an excellent job creating a fresh story within a narrative text and mythical subtext, the film was only as successful as it was because he adhered to basic fairy-tale tropes with which we are all familiar, at some level. The rule of three in literature is probably the most important. This can be very basic, as with a beginning, middle, and end to a story, a three act structure in screenwriting like the other two movies in this 'trilogy' (The Devil's Backbone and The Orphanage), or through canonical layering, i.e., del Toro's civil war, fairy tale, and coming-of-age stories. Or, it could have more blatant symbolism attached. In fairy tales, there are usually three daughters/sisters (Cinderella) and three brothers or princes; there were three little pigs with three houses; Goldilocks met three bears; Rumpelstiltskin spins golden thread three times for the girl that can guess his name over three days; wishes granted by djinn come in threes; Snow White is visited by her wicked stepmother—you guessed it—three times; the list goes on for ages. This number hails back to texts from a plethora of religions, such as Christianity's holy trinity in the Bible, Odin's three earthly hardships or Ragnarök with a precedent of three harsh winters in Norse mythology, the Triple Bodhi of Buddhism, Trimurti in Hinduism, triple deities in Celtic Paganism, e tcetera. Don't even get me started on triplets in Greek myth .

So, yes, threes are extremely important. It usually depends on the tale to understand just what they symbolize. In Red Riding Hood, things that repeat three times act as warnings, such as the wolf's hunger brought on by three days of starvation. In Pan's Labyrinth, Ofelia's three tasks mark phases in her departure from childhood while the three storehouse keys signify both salvation in the form of medicine and destruction in the form of an unbroken lock. The gigantic toad is killed with three magic stones, the Underground Palace possesses three thrones, the faun supplies three faeries, and Ofelia must choose from three doors once inside the Pale Man's domain. I have typed the word 'three' far too many times, and I hate grammatical repetition. However, I still need to mention that adults saw Ofelia's magic as 'real' three times: Carmen and the mandrake's fiery death, Mercedes' observation of the chalk door in Ofelia's bedroom, and the Captain's inability to bear witness to Ofalia's interaction with the faun at the center of the labyrinth. But Rachel, you said that they saw the magic, yet the Captain clearly did not! I attribute this not only the film's commentary on Ofelia's coping mechanism, but the Captain's complete failure to perceive beauty; that kind of thing strays too far from a regimented world such as his.

Twos are also significant, since that the doctor doses Carmen with two drops of laudanum, the mandrake needs two drops of blood, the Pale man possesses two eyeballs, Ofelia eats two grapes, and so on. Twos are more representative of duality, which makes sense in this film given that it consists of two intermingling worlds.

Three Doors and an Athame—sounds like a game-show title, no? 'Come on doooown!'

There are of course other important fairy-tale elements reflected in Pan's Labyrinth. This genre oftentimes deals with morals and, while Ofelia learns to be observant, brave, and to deal with sacrifice, the glaring moralistic lesson I noticed was the Captain's unhealthy fascination with mortality. His own watch was a symbol for the passage of time and his inevitable death. It could not be thwarted for all of his preparedness or obsession with having everything in its proper place. Another thing to consider is del Toro's parallel between the Captain and the Pale Man. This is perhaps less obvious than the connection between Ofelia and Mercedes, but both creatures committed infanticide and, as Mimi pointed out, both sat at the head of their tables at a 'feast'. Creepy-ass mo-fo's. In other fairy tales, a lot of characters are parallels with one another, such as the big bad wolf and the huntsman/woodcutter (check out Telltale Games' The Wolf Among Us for more morally layered characters).

Eyes were also a featured image in Pan's Labyrinth. The first 'real life' scene has Ofelia pushing a stone eye into the faun's carved rock face, marking the beginning of her journey into the realm of magic. She alone has the eyes to see the fairy-tale world in its entirety—to appreciate the natural world despite her unsafe surroundings. Likewise, Red observes the wolf as her grandmother and questions his animalistic features before being devoured. Sight is a decidedly good attribute. Then again, there are the Pale Man's hands...ugh.

Music is incredibly important in this film. The myth of Princess Moanna (see the next section) has its own theme, recognizable as Mercede's lullaby and later identified as Ofelia's leitmotif. Listen to Javier Navarrete's orchestration below. It certainly shivers my timbers.

Pan's Labyrinth Lullaby—Nana del fauno del laberinto.

On top of these thematic and symbolic choices, del Toto integrates a slew of mythical creatures from belief systems around the world. 'Faun' is an Ancient Greek term for a satyr-like being in Roman mythology. They are half-man/half-goat and play on the gullible nature of humans in order to get what they desire. It is unclear if the faun in the film—named Pan like the Greek god of the wild—is trustworthy or simply trying to get back to the Underground Kingdom before he dies out like the rest of his kind, but it makes me feel better on a personal level to think that he had to test Ofelia's true spirit by doing a kind of double-cross with the final trial. He does show up in the royal court, after all. On top of the faun we have his three helpful faeries, one of which transformed from a giant stick bug into a 'more appropriate form'. The giant toad and the Pale Man are both monsters that Ofelia needed to defeat, and it could be easily argued that the Captain as an evil stepfather is a monster, too. In fact...though human, he is without a doubt the most monstrous being of the story.

The film actually has its own original fairy tale: "Princess Moanna, whose father is the king of the Underworld, becomes curious about the world above: the human world. When she goes to the surface, the sunlight blinds her and erases her memory. She becomes very ill and eventually dies. However, the king believes that her spirit will come back to the Underworld someday." And so they waited for her...for a very long time.

The story Ofelia tells to her unborn brother about the blue rose of immortality is similar to that of Sleeping Beauty, what with the thorns acting as an unbreachable barrier. It also connects to the idea of virginity/purity present in most fairy tales. The faun wanting the Princess to prove her purity; the overall shape of the Moribund Tree, which Ofelia enters and leaves like a womb; the bleeding book of precognition; Carmen's pregnancy; Ofelia's eventual maturity. In Sleeping Beauty, the princess only awakes because the Prince has had sexual intercourse with her and she needs to give birth. Both princesses in Snow White and The Juniper Tree have 'lips red as blood, skin white as snow'—a glaring symbol of menstruation or a broken hymen. Little Red Riding Hood features not only the coloured headpiece but the girls' own innocence. The Littlest Mermaid is all about reaching a certain age and acquiring love. I could go on and on in this direction.

Pan's Labyrinth gives me the perfect excuse to talk about another Labyrinth. Jim Henson's 1986 film focuses on a the adolescent Sarah and her fairy-tale journey. She deals with an evil stepmother of her own, as well as trials and monsters galore. Ofelia did not have to face a singing, dancing goblin king with outrageous hair, but I'd chose to fight '80s glam David Bowie any day over the three-times-almost-but-not-quite-killed torturing bastard who is the Captain in Pan's Labyrinth. Yikes.

Ofelia with the faun's book, Sarah with hers.
The covers are even the same exact colour, for Crispin's sake!

Why did  Guillermo del Toro chose to tell this story through the use of myth? Supernatural elements tend to be well-contrasted with grim realities, and the Spanish Civil War of 1944 fills that bill to a T. Myths were created by human beings in the first place in order to rationalize unexplainable concepts like death and cruelty. Ofelia used her imagination to cope with her mother's illness brought on by pregnancy, having to leave the city because of her father's death, and the sins of her new stepfather. Paralleling those things with surrealistic characters and ineffable trials was a good move on the director's part. It helped the audience to deal with scenes of torture when they were then also faced with the acts of a non-human cannibal. I know that sounds bizarre...but it's true.

A final note: I see a trend in fairy tale movies of casting dead relatives in fantastical roles. In the film MirrorMask, the main character Helena's mother, Joanne, is sick, so when Helena travels to the other side her mother becomes the Queen of Light and Queen of Dark, emphasizing the way her moody teenage daughter views her in real life. In The Brother's Grimm, Angelika's father, the huntsman, is turned into the wolf by the evil Queen, dying once he is no longer under her spell. Van Helsing sees Anna's brother, Velkan, shed his human form and turn into a werewolf. The list goes on. This transformation allows the main character to deal with the loss, just as Ofelia did with her own mother.

Carmen as the Underworld Queen, Joanne as the Queen of Light & Queen of Shadows.

Now if that did not hit all the criteria, I don't know what will. :P

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Ofelia & Little Red Riding Hood

This post follows criteria, linking a specific fairy tale to the film Pan's Labyrinth through summarization.

Little girl v. big, bad danger.
Illustration by Lauren Henderson.

There are always different versions of the 'same' fairy tale, and Little Red Riding Hood is no exception. French author Charles Perrault and one side of the Brothers Grimm (Wilhelm) both adapted their own stories from German, Polish, Italian, Austrian, and French versions that cropped up sporadically throughout Europe in the 10th and 14th centuries. It has gone by many different names, most familiarly The False Grandmother, which could possibly to explain why some renditions feature hoods v. caps v. other types of headgear of various colours (Charles Marelles rewrote the story entirely, changing the hood to yellow/gold). The whole colour thing is interesting when you consider del Toro's lighting preferences when separating 1944 fascist Spain with the fairy-tale and underground worlds, or even Ofelia's red shoes with that of Red's whatever-she-happens-to-be-wearing. Anyway...

I had to indulge my history support and aesthetic validation there for a few moments, but enough context. The earliest recorded written account of the folktale lies with Perrault, and it just so happens that it fits quite well with del Toro's film. For starters, both stories begin with the age-old line "Once upon a time..."

There lived a little country girl who was doted on by her mother and grandmother [Ofelia moves to the country with her single parent]. The mother made her daughter a red hood [Ofelia's mother made her a dress]. One day, the mother sent Red to her grandmother's house because she was ill [the mother's poor pregnancy]. So, taking along some confectionery [Remember the Pale Man's banquet? Of course you do.] the little girl went on her way through the woods [for Ofelia, the labyrinth].

As she walked, Red met a wolf [in the film, this changes from the trickster faun to the evil stepfather]. The wolf wanted to eat her but could not for fear of nearby woodcutters [the resistance]. Instead, he made light conversation with the young girl and asked where she was headed off to in such a hurry. Oddly unafraid, she answered by telling him about her sick grandmother in the next village...disclosing the exact location of her house. -_- She told the wolf that it was nestled just past a mill [which is where most of the events of the film take place].

Intermission image, cuz it's beautiful and dark, the paragraphs were too many...
and I do what I want.
Illustration by Noctillucca.

The wolf takes his leave, rushing off to go eat the grandmother and wait for Red to show up so he can consume her as well [Pale Man again *shudder*]. Red gets distracted by butterflies [Ofelia by faeries] and decides it would be a grand idea to gather some nuts and little bouquets of wildflowers [Red goofs around three times, Ofelia completes three tasks]. Meanwhile, the wolf has arrived at the house and lies to the grandmother about his identity in order to gain entry [much like the faun's lies to Ofelia, although his reasoning is much more sound]. He eats her alive because he's starving—hadn't eaten in three days, apparently. >_>

Enter Red. The wolf, now disguised as the grandmother in the sickbed, asks the girl to join him, which she oh-so stupidly does. This bit strays from Pan's Labyrinth in that Ofelia is no where near so gosh-darned dumb. Well, apart from when she eats the two grapes despite being expressly told not to. Siiigh.

Anyway, this is when Red makes remarks about her 'grandmother's' big arms, legs, ears, eyes, and teeth. The wolf responds with light remarks in an attempt to make her complacent, but eventually gets bored with the mind games and eats her whole [Ofelia's death brought about by her stepfather, the Captain, or a direct reflection of the Pale Man's terrifying eating habits]. Some versions end with a wood cutter or group of lumberjacks bursting into the grandmother's cottage to kill the wicked wolf, and I suppose that could be taken as the Spanish rebels surrounding the mill and shooting the Captain in the face. [He totes deserved that.]

End-of-story-moral-wise, Ofelia differs from Red in that she learned independence and bravery rather than how to hide from dangerous strangers along isolated forest paths.

Illustration at left by Arthur Rackham. Uterus-shaped Moribund Tree at right by del Toro.

With both stories we get the rule of three, a nature-setting (see the above images), characters with similar, er, characteristics, allusions to virginity/ menstruation/ coming-of-age (again, look at the above image and try to unsee the feminine similarity), and all that good stuff. I will analyze these things—and more!—in the next post.

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Use of Music: Musical Masterpost

This post is going to be a long one. I apologize in advance for the varying sound levels of the posted videos.


I first came to enjoy musical's with an episode of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Before that, all I had were the endless reruns my music teacher used to play of West Side Story, mum's favourites The Music Man and Singin' in the Rain, and Disney films like Mary Poppins or Beauty and the Beast. I actually kind of enjoyed those, but then regressed a bit when I watched the sloppy & soppy plots of The Sound of MusicWilly Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (although I do love 'Pure Imagination'), Grease, and Annie. Others I just did not really get. Musical is a tough genre to get into, truth be told. The plots of Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret as well as the humor of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors went over my head because I was too young/uneducated when I first viewed them. Then came musicals like ChicagoRent, and Mamma Mia—all of which made my ears bleed. Harsh, I know, but true all the same.

No, it was Whedon's Once More with Feeling that allowed me to truly appreciate the skillful interweaving of story with lyrical verse. I was already a fan of the show, so I am sure that helped. So did Anthony Head. (Though, for the love of mercy, DO NOT watch Repo! The Genetic Opera. It's sooo terrible.)

Oh, Giles...

Years later I came across another of Joss' works: Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. This three-part miniseries was created during the Writer's Strike of '08, and oooooh did the audience win. Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, Felicia Day, and all of your favourite Whedonverse-tropes. The finale has all the feels (I almost never use that phrase, so you better believe I mean it).

The entire movie/combined episodes.

Backtracking a little, I fell majorly in love with Andrew Lloyd Webber's 2004 film version of The Phantom of the Opera. Well, in all honestly, I hated it the first time I saw it. Twelve-year-old me was in that awkward 'What's the fuss about all these silly moozakaalz?' phase. Ah, youth. Stupid youth. After I had finished rolling my eyes at the ludicrousness of people breaking out into song in a legitimate, modern Hollywood movie that did not involve old-timey morals or animated characters, the film ended and I was bawling. The Phantom is a tragic character, and I have always been a sucker for that kind of thing. Becoming obsessed, I read Leroux's original novel, watched a crap-ton of other—admittedly wretched—versions, and saw ALW's live production a few years ago. It was by far better than the film...so I recommend purchasing a ticket if it is ever showing in your neighborhood. There's a good reason it is the longest-running show on Broadway.

Oh snap, he calls Piangi fat! >_< Also, way to be a creeper at the end, amirite?

Then came the patently Tim Burton version of  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Who knew Johnny Depp could sing so well, eh? Or Helena Bonham Carter, or...Alan Rickman?! Arising from the Penny Dreadfuls of old, this story is really dark for the genre. I did not guess the twist until the very end—should have seen it coming!—but was still left satisfied, if a bit terrified. I would not object to seeing a live production at some point in my life, either.

Dangit, stalker-kid Anthony! Stop interrupting!

At some point I watched Baz Luhrmann's 2001 creation Moulin Rouge! in its entirety. It's one of those movies that was on tele all the time, but one could never quite sit down and watch it all the way through because it is so...hard to describe. The first half is completely crazy banana-pants, but you have to admire the technique. This musical meshed modern-era songs and fit them into a story loosely based upon the opera La Traviata. Ewan McGregor is another surprising actor in the singing department, and the end of the film always makes me tear up a bit. Whether that's due to (spoiler!) Satine's death or the fact that the movie just finally ended is a question that boggles my mind to this very day.

This isn't even the most confusing scene. Not by a long shot.

Let's move onto Across the Universe. This musical doesn't seem to be that well known despite the fact that it is an absolute masterpiece. Set during the Vietnam war, the story is molded around the music of The Beatles and more-than-adequately performed by the actors/singers in the film. The narrative was fresh and the historical feel seemed accurate enough. 10/10 stars from this viewer.

These characters are the best in town.

I had to watch the most recent Les Misérables for a history course on twentieth century France here at Alverno, and it was definitely a different experience. Unlike musicals I was used to at the time, the entire thing was sung in verse. I mean all of it. I could not stand that. Peoples' ears need to take an intermission or two, but with Les Mis it was unrelenting. There was also the whole controversy about getting famous Hollywood actors to take on roles better suited for theatrical singers, and I have to concede that I probably would have liked PotO, ST, or even MR! better had the singers been trained professionals/experienced in the genre. Grant it, I thought Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway did well in Les Mis while Mr. Broadway Hugh Jackman was meh. As usual, it all comes down to personal opinion. This is a story that probably would have been better off as a normal, non-musical movie. Some of the songs aid while others just feel drawn-out. I wonder what Hugo's opinion would be.

Rooftop scenes happen a lot in musicals—skyline backdrops are easy to create.

It would be remiss of me to not mention ALW's Jesus Christ Superstar, even if it is technically a rock opera. The original Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson, ladies and gents: they have got some pipes. Funnily enough, JCS is like Les Mis in that there are no spoken lines of dialogue. However, it is done in a way that actually suits the story. Not a single line seems forced. I suppose that you need to see it to truly understand my point. Anyway, as I mentioned in my last post, I am mad for Tim Minchin. He played the most recent incarnation of Judas in the 2012 Live Arena Tour. I must say, even with the unfortunate auto-tuning job done to the DVD version, Minchin still sounds pretty swish.

asdfghjkl;'

Speaking of Minchin, did you know that he wrote the music and lyrics for the multiple award-winning Matilda the Musical? I don't much like children...least of all when they are singing. But in this story, children are maggots. Very talented ones at that. Still, if that's not your cup of tea, let this medley performed at the 2013 Tony Awards convince you:

Get it? "Revolting" children? Clever-clogs.

I know this next one is not a musical per se because there isn't actually any singing, but if you enjoy choreography set to a phenomenal soundtrack, then Jon M. Chu's Legion of Extraordinary Dancers comes highly recommended. Try their YouTube channel for free episodes, or take on all three feature-film versions. The series is on hold because one of their main dancers is recovering from a ruptured brain aneurysm...but hopefully, one day, it will return. My personal favourite is the Dark Doctor played by the amazingly talented JRock Nelson. Check out the video below and you will not be disappointed. This is only episode three, so watching it will not spoil anything.

How do they even do that?!

Lastly, I am most certainly looking forward to Psych: The Musical. Both a long time fan of the series and a firm believer in the idea that if a show reaches seven+ seasons a musical episode should be obligatory, I could not be more psyched. [Lazy pun intended.] December 15th could not possibly arrive soon enough.

UPDATE 12/20/13 - I cannot get "Jamaican Inspector" out of my head. >_< Also, Timothy Omundson has a rather lovely voice.

UPDATE 1/25/15 - Galavant. King Richard <3

Again, let me just asdfghjkl;'.

What are your favourite musicals? Which ones do you dislike? What story would you like to see turned into a musical? Let me know in the comments below.

Water

This post follows cultural/spiritual perspective and response criteria. Major spoiler alert.

Deepa Mehta's 2005 film Water (वाटर in Hindi) was written and translated by Anurag Kashyap. Set in 1983, this film examines the harsh treatment and livelihood of widowers in Indian society. Before the DVD was even set up to play, Mimi asked members of the class where they drew the line when it came to movies. In other words, what did they think counted as inappropriate or having gone too far? I mulled over this question as my classmates talked about child abuse, scenes that portray torture, children depicted as the enemy, a distinct lack of plot, et cetera. All very understandable. Now, because the story of Water focuses (in-part) on the struggles of a little girl named Chuyia—played by Sarala Kariyawasam—this meant that it was difficult to watch for some members of the audience. On a personal level, I base my response on more of a character-to-character basis. If I am invested in someone, I dislike to see harm come their way...as if they were people I actually knew in real life. On the other hand, if it serves the story and helps to get the point across, then I do not mind seeing them placed in peril. Those things are at odds with one another, mais c'est la vie. Let us move onto the meat of the post.

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material (sex, drug use).

The presenters told us of Radha Krishna, a Hindu god/goddess usually considered as one being. In Water, Mehta's lead character's Kalyani (Lisa Ray) and Narayan (John Abraham) acted as physical interpretations of this deity. The story is definitely improved with this context in mind, as it creates ties to one of India's most ancient religions and helped bring it into the modern world. Given that the love story of Radha Krishna is celebrated so highly in Hinduism, it was interesting to watch the interaction between these two Romeo and Juliet-esque characters. Social caste repeatedly won out against seemingly pious views simply because it benefited the Brahmin class. The entire film did an excellent job exploring related fallacies, which is one of the reasons why Mehta was spoken out against so vehemently in her native India.

Kalyani, the prostituting widow, and Narayan, the Brahmin follower of Gandhi.

Something that struck me about Kalyani was her portrayal as a sort of martyr. The widows were all dressed in white, branding them as being widows in Indian society. They were seen as unclean but, in so many other cultures across the globe, white depicts innocence and purity and usually signifies virginity. Even in India, fair skin means wealth and a high-born class. In fact, white was traditionally reserved for the Brahmin caste...odd, given revised circumstances. We know that Kalyani's husband died before they even met. Then again, she was prostituted in the widow house...but as our presenters informed us, this place exists in Varanasi, which is considered the holy land of India. Something to mull over. Anyway, Kalyani ended up drowning herself in the cleansing waters of the river Varuna after finding out that she had slept with her fiancee's father as a means of income. She saw herself as unfit for marriage because of a 'sin' forced upon her in order to pay for her fellow widows' welfare: a truly tragic story of self-sacrifice in the name of love. Kalyani's very essence is that of a dutifully religious and caring individual. She is simply placed in unfortunate circumstances. Narayan falls for her at first sight because of her physical beauty—although their meeting had a rather fateful aspect—but her gentle and humble personality is what bound them together as kindred spirits, what with Narayan's belief in pacifism and equality. We also have to consider that clearly iconographic scene of Kalyani as she prayed to her god. Here's my take:

Bit of a resemblance, no?

That obviously dips across cultures and into Christianity (the Madonna figure), but Hindu scripture is very important in Water—as revealed in the trailer. Another link that I did not recognize during my first viewing of the film was the tree under which Kalyani and Narayan had their rendezvous. It looked like a Pipal/Bodhi, which was the same type of tree that Gautama Buddha supposedly meditated beneath until he "found the truth." Narayan said over and over that truth was the most important thing in life. We could also consider Gandhi's tie to Buddhism, since he was another character in the film and an inspiring figure for Narayan. Just something else to think about, I suppose. The final thing I want to addresses is something that I remembered hearing in musician/comedian Tim Minchin's nine-minute beat poem, Storm. In the story, Minchin debates with an imaginary New Age hippie existing under the horrible namesake of 'Storm'. Over the course of a dinner party, he demolishes the girl's anti-logic/anti-science arguments through intelligent social commentary. Some lyrics are as follows:

"And fine, if you wish to
Glorify Krishna and Vishnu
In a post-colonial, condescending,
Bottled-up and labeled kind of way
Then whatever, that's OK..."

I've probably listened to the song way too much (I'm kind of obsessed with the guy, so it was really only a matter of time before some of his insight appeared on my blog), but when the presenters mentioned on Saturday that Krishna was an incarnation of Vishnu, I immediately recalled that bit of the poem. Looking at it more deeply after having read Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things in a world lit. course, I can see Mehta's similar criticism seeping through in Water. Minchin mocks how some non Indian-born people adapt Hinduism only in areas that work for them and without actually considering the deeper meanings of the religion and its negative effect upon society. Roy and Mehta have an insider's view on colonialism in relation to culture and spirituality...but that is another post entirely. As for Minchin, I recommend having a listen to Storm in full.


The official trailer for Water.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Camera Technique: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Visual effects! Hurrah!


This movie was a tad...odd, even by my standards. It definitely requires multiple viewings. Director Terry Gilliam is known for dabbling in the bizarre with such works as Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brothers Grimm, and of course a plethora of Monty Python films. According to IMDB: "After the death of Heath Ledger, production was shut down for a few months. Then it was re-started when Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell agreed to complete Ledger's role. The film's fantasy premise—and some clever rewrites—allowed the actors to play a man whose appearance changes as he travels between imaginary worlds." (IMDB Trivia). This worked out really well, as IoDP relies pretty heavily on CGI, miniatures, partial sets combined with bluescreen, and all that good stuff to aid all of the fantastical elements. Also, your heart has to melt at the fact that all three of the actors who took over the role gave 100% of their received income to Ledger's daughter in order to secure her economic future. Crying yet? I had better move onto the gifs.

Taken from this Tumblr.

Here we have Mr. Nick (Tom Waits!) emerging from a mirror. This character is basically Satan, so of course he has his own CGI flames added in post-production. Valentina (Lily Cole) has her soul taken away as per her father's deal with Mr. Nick. After a dance routine—oh yes—she blows a kiss goodbye and is sent into hellfire. Mr. Nick seems disappointed at having finally won...but there is more yet to come for both characters.

 
 
Taken from this Tumblr.

This gifset best exemplifies the kind of VFX used in IoDP. Looks pretty crazy, yeah? This movie does not even try to integrate effects in a way that makes them seem realistic. The whole point is to be dreamlike and visually astonishing. Check out this article for a much more in-depth look into all of the VFX.


Another intriguing idea that Gilliam had was to base certain scenes on famous paintings, such as the above by Grant Wood. Neat, huh?

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Tsotsi

This post follows criteria focusing on sound and music.

Last class we watched another multiple award-winning movie: Gavin Hood's Tsotsi. Released in 2005, this film represents a snippet of a thug's life in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was brilliantly adapted from a novel of the same name by Athol Fugard. In this post, I will explore how the soundtrack affected the tone and message.

Rated R for strong language and some violent content.

Tsotsi features Kwaito music, which has been defined as the modern music of South African townships. According to the film's main website, this genre was used to "add to the authentic feel of ghetto street life." To the ears of Westerners, this kind of music sounds similar to gangster rap and has been likened to American hip-hop with its violent beat, guttural tune, and primarily vitriolic lyrics sung in street-slang. Because of its origins in Johannesburg townships, Kwaito truly represents the urban culture through its local lyrics, which are present nearly everywhere amongst the youth of that region. Again from the website:


This is irrefutably linked to the film's story. One of the beginning scenes shows Tsotsi and his gang leaving his shack and making their way through town. We get our first taste of Kwaito with poet and musician Zola's Mdlwembe. Watching Tsotsi, Aap, Butcher and Boston make their presence felt within the community played well against the music. It did not define them; rather they defined it. Later in the film, when the gang (minus Boston) are headed toward the house owned by the baby's parents with the intention of robbing it, another song from the genre blasts from the speakers as they crest a hill. It is as though the music acts as their personal soundtrack—which, don't lie, everyone wants—meaning that it is not just an added effect but an important part of the characters' lives. The musical side of things was made even more interesting when I found out that Zola actually had a feature role in the film as Fela, the other gang leader. This illustrates just how well respected contributors to Kwaito music are. If you spread the music of the people, you help to give them a voice in all sorts of matters.

The Gang
Left to Right: Boston, Butcher, Aap, Tsotsi, Tsotsi's grieved reflection

In addition to this genre, Tsotsi features more melodic tracks created by Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker ft. the traditional folk vocals of Vusi Mahlasela. Stolen Legs, On the Tracks, and Bye Bye Baby are just a few examples. These melodic songs contrasted nicely with the harsher dance numbers. They represented touching flashback scenes and intimate moments between the main character, Miriam, and the baby. This allowed for much-needed lulls in an otherwise consistently violent story. It also added layers to Tsotsi himself: the hardened street kid hiding his desire for tender mothering. It is also possible that these tracks were laid down to highlight the struggle between 'iconic Africa' painted on the walls of the nursery and the modernistic age that has ripped apart the people via classicism. This is a theme evident throughout the entirety of the film.

Urban life v. the outskirts.

I am definitely not an expert when it comes to the analysis of music (which is why this post is a bit short). In addition to that, I presume no knowledge concerning African-rooted genres. Still, I was able to appreciate the stylistic choices and see at least a few connections between them and other messages weaved throughout Tsotsi. Even without a background in this area, you will most certainty still appreciate the film and its story.


Rubbish narration, but a good example of the two distinct styles of music.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

Camera Technique: MirrorMask

I took me a while to find some pre-made gifs that show the use of transition in Dave McKean & Neil Gaiman's 2005 film MirrorMask...but, evidently, I did. ;)

First, my favorite of the gifs (all are sourced from various Tumblr accounts):

Wipe
Above, the animated wipe starts from the right and moves horizontally to the left. It is really creative because, rather than just occurring on its own, the transition is forced by two drawn characters as they turn a page in a sketchbook. This specific scene really sets the tone for the movie with its artistic style.

Lens flare is not in our textbook (Anatomy of Film 6th ed. by B. Dick), and while I certainly am not particularly fond of this effect *cough*Abrams*cough*, it works well in these two scenes. In the first gif, the main character Helena is going through a kind of dream-within-a-dream sequence, and the transition from scanning the surrounding environment to her mother touching her face—bridged by the flare—helps pull the audience back into the immediate moment.

In the second gif, Helena places the MirrorMask on her face and turns to her friend Valentine. This makes a sort of distortion similar to that created with swish pan but, rather than a blur, there is a flash of light. Valentine is revealed in the mask's reflection, completing the transition.

Time Lapse
This scene goes through a transition via the use of time lapse. Basically, the recording is sped up like in those science videos that display a flower blooming in a matter of seconds. Looking at it more closely though, the lights of the circus sign do not appear to be in hyperspeed...so, editing/VFX magic? If you know the more technical term for this, please leave a comment.

Overlay/Contrast Cut
Lastly, another gif of The Campbell Family Circus. This shot actually captures a lot of detail as Helena runs toward the tent, which is reflected in the pool of water on the asphalt, thereby creating continuity with the theme of duality. The blank papers from her bedroom wall are overlaid on this image, allowing the audience some insight into the fact that the scenes are connected. The drawings have disappeared; ipso facto, transition your arse over to the big top, pronto!

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Whale Rider

This post follows criteria, using the historical framework. Also, spoilers!

This past Saturday we saw Niki Caro's Whale Rider, first broadcast in 2002 and set in beautiful New Zealand. The major focus of this narrativeoriginally written by Witi Ihimaerais on a young Māori girl named Paikea (played by the remarkable Keisha Castle-Hughes) and her desire to be seen as an equal by her old-world grandfather, Koro (played by Rawiri Paratene). I was in the group that presented during class, so I have collected a lot of information on Māori art, culture, and history. In this post, I will touch on the cultural traditions of the Māori, oral folklore, and the obsession with male leadership. I also plan on briefly discussing the matter of destiny and the film's ambiguous ending. Let's get started!

Rated PG-13 for brief language and reference to drugs.

As said during the presentation, the Māori migrated to New Zealand from Polynesia. [Remember what Maggie presented about Kupe and his octopus? Yeah, that guy.] This means that they brought over some of their customs and beliefs. It is also important to know that the Māori were evolving from a Neolithic culture and, as such, theylike the rest of the worldcreated systems to conserve resources. One of these systems is known as Tapu. Anything, anyone, or anywhere that is labeled as such becomes 'taboo' and is seen as being sacrosanct. This was most often enacted by tohunga (priests) in order to connect people/places/things with spiritual ties and to protect resources from overexploitation. There were consequences for the violation of tapu...most notably, death. As we saw in the movie, Pai breaks tapu when she handles a taiaha/fighting stick and performs mau rakau/stick fighting with one of the boys being taught in the school. Koro discovers this and is enraged not so much at the fact that Pai took up a taiaha, but that a girl disarmed one of his male students. He scolds and banishes her from the area despite the fact that they are related and she was just defending herself. I found it interesting that when the boy with whom she had been sparring told Koro that it was not her fault, he snapped at him to go wash his face because he had been crying. This exemplifies the dominance of  macho behaviour in Māori culture...but I digress into the feminist approach.

Although it was not mentioned specifically in the movie, another aspect of Māori culture is the idea of mana, i.e., power and prestige. Entire tribes exhibit mana whenua to show dominance over their land just as individuals show that they possess mana tangata through their whakapapa (genealogical) connections. I cannot help but think that Koro has some major issues concerning the display of his personal mana. He is old school and probably considered an elder, or a kaumatua, by everyone in the community. In order to uphold his appearance, he clings to how things once were and attempts to fill generational gaps with an onslaught of heritage appreciation in the form of whakapapa trials (performing haka dancing, honoring ancestors in the wharenui/meeting house, testing wairua/spirit by throwing his rāhui whale tooth into the ocean, etc). The disappointment he feels in both of his sons is unfairly shifted onto Paikea. Her mere name is an annoyance to him for a reason I will dissect in the following paragraphs, and even at her birth Koro only cares about her dead twin and the lost lineage (symbolism of the frayed rope). His wife was having none of that nonsense though. Nanny Flowers is a pretty cool lady.

Paikea sitting in her father's waka (canoe) like the Whale Rider of Māori legend.

Storytelling is a sacred activity in Māori culture. It was all spoken word before literacy came to New Zealand with the Europeans and their missionaries. One of the most well known folkloric stories that has survived the test of time is that of the Whale Rider Paikea. Yes, this bloke and the girl in the film share a name because her father wanted to spite Koro for not grieving the loss of his daughter-in-law. Anyway, the myth goes that Paikea's brother Ruatapu became angry when their father elevated Pai's rank. Ruatapu's mother was a slave-woman, so her son could never be as respected as his brother. This pissed him off enough to build a waka and lure all of his high-born brothers (including Pai) into it and later try to drown them out in the ocean. While Ruatapu was busying murdering the other brothers, Pai recited an incantation that called the humpback whales to carry him back to shore. Fin. [Pun intended.] So, Ruatapu's father was kind of a jerk, Koro was (at times) a massive dick. Pai called and rode the whales. Other Pai did the same. Hmm...


Yeah, well, Māori society is patriarchal. Because of that origin story, all leaders in the tribe have been first-born males, giving no chance to anyone who might actually do well in said role. Rachelle mentioned during the presentation that it is a fundamental belief in their culture that women lead from behind. This gives them some modicum of power—Nanny Flowers and her poker circle, Uncle Rawiri's girlfriend, the school teacher, Pai herself—and that is probably why it is so difficult for Koro to accept Pai's own mana. He is bound by custom and fears his tribe's loss of respect for tradition, so he himself cannot welcome Pai as a leader until she proves, time and again, that she is 'meant to be' the next Whale Rider. Her father's choice to sire her "Paikea" is an insult to Koro because of the name's all-important meaning...but, eventually, the elder 'changes his mind' about her. D'aww.


This trailer shows a few of the cultural aspects present in the movie.


Pai was brought up to appreciate her heritage. Compared to all of the first-born boys in the village (and her own father), she appears best suited for the role of tribal leader. She takes the time to learn mau rakau, listens in on Koro's lessons, and memorizes that heart-breaking speech in honor of her beloved grandfather. She calls to the whales and they beach themselves. It is only when Nanny Flowers reveals to Koro the carved whale tooth that Pai retrieved from the bottom of the sea that he realizes she was always meant to be their leader. She was also riding a gigantic whale sooo that was a bit of a clue. :\

Pai at her recital, dedicatedly wearing tribal dress and tā moko face paint.

That brings me to the film's conclusion. Did Paikea die? What was said to Koro on the telephone before he went to the hospital? Did he die of heartbreak, and were they both spirits on the waka celebrating the fact that the tribe had finally come together over her sacrifice? (There was another major advancement on that front: women were performing haka and rowing the canoe alongside their male counterparts. Huzzah!) It seems to me that Caro wanted to leave all of that up for interpretation by her audience. I first saw this movie around the age of eleven and I did not remember seeing any scene after Pai let go of the whale underwater. It is possible that my eyes were drowning in tears at the time (some movies can do that to me so easily), but I find such a large gap in memory hard to reconcile. Was it simply my brain assuming that the girl was gone? Dunno. Deep stuff, that. How do you interpret the ending? I know in class everyone was going a tad mental over the whole thing, so share your thoughts!

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